Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Rebuilding Family Relationships

Dear Joseph,

I was raised in an abusive home—both physically and emotionally—and after many years of estrangement, my abuser would like to have a relationship with me. Now that I am expanding my own family, she is very interested in doing what it takes to be part of my and my children’s lives. I don’t know if she has truly changed, but if she has, I would love for my children to have a grandparent in their life. I am well versed in Crucial Conversations, but I honestly have no idea where to start. How do you rebuild Safety and Mutual Respect that has degenerated to the point of non-existence?

To Forgive or Protect?

Dear Forgive or Protect,

I am so sorry about the pain of your early life. No one should have to endure that kind of torment. Which is why I am confident you will step up to the advice I have to offer for the sake of your children.

When you were younger, you were completely vulnerable. You needed someone to protect you—and no one was there. Our primary duty to our children is to ensure their physical and emotional safety. Next comes love and nurturing. But basic safety is foundational. Grandparents are great—but safety comes first. You know what it’s like to look to people in your life and be unable to trust them for this most basic of needs. You now have the chance to get that right for your children. Every decision you make needs to put their safety first. If gaining a grandparent introduces even a small chance of preventable harm, the grandparent goes. With that in mind, here are some thoughts about how you might approach this situation.

1. If you can’t talk about it, it’s not over. My first question is, have you been able to thoroughly discuss the abuse you experienced with this person? If not, then you can have no confidence that the behavior you saw in the past will not repeat itself. Do not offer your trust until there is acknowledgment. This conversation may open your eyes to emotional trauma this individual struggled with as well. You may feel deep empathy for them as a result. But don’t equate empathy with tolerance. A healthy and open conversation is a good start. In fact, it is a prerequisite for building trust—but it is not the end.

2. Use yourself, not your children, as the guinea pig. Even if you are able to honestly discuss the past, you must still test the present. Don’t allow this person to connect with your children until you have sufficient time to rebuild your own trust with them. This could take a year or more. This investment in time might give you a chance to heal from your trauma as well. If she pressures you for access to the grandchildren sooner, but is unwilling to invest in rebuilding trust with you first, I would be concerned she is still in denial about the scale of her challenge and the reality of your abuse.

3. Set boundaries to test for reform. If the time comes that you feel very confident that she can honor you and your boundaries in your relationship with her, I would slowly introduce her to the grandchildren—and do so under controlled circumstances at first.

In summary, I would begin the process of building a new relationship by:

a) Letting her know you are open to it—in fact, are grateful for her interest in kindling it.
b) Giving her a picture of the kind of time and investment you will need from her in order to create it.

This will likely be a tricky conversation. She may well feel hurt or defensive by your requests. And I’ll emphasize again, you should judge the likelihood of a healthy relationship in the future by her capacity to engage well with you in this first conversation!

I wish you the best as you care for yourself and your precious children.


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17 thoughts on “Rebuilding Family Relationships”

  1. Dave

    This post (on Rebuilding Family Relationships) is touching, and something I relate to intimately. Joseph’s advice is excellent, as far as it goes. In addition to following his outline, I would recommend individual counseling for the parent – to be sure whatever may lurk under the surface is brought into the open – and forgiveness work, possibly in the same venue. If in doubt about what forgiveness entails, see the website for Robert Enright’s Forgiveness Institute. This work will put the parent more solidly on his or her feet. I would also recommend bringing the co-parent (assuming there is one) into the picture so both of them are on the same page.
    Best of luck to all.

  2. george wilhelmsen

    Been there, done that. My father is a manipulative jerk who made my life very difficult. I still have to try to keep his “engrained teachings” out of my life.

    The tiger never changes their spots. The abuser is still an abuser – they don’t change. I have kept my distance from my father, as has my family. He’s dangerous, and still manipulative – he told my mother that he was dying and had 6 weeks to live 2 years ago, trying to get me to come and get within his sphere of evil again. I told my mother I wasn’t falling for that trick and would wish himwell. He’s still alive – go figure.

    For now, I have chosen to peacefully co-exist apart, and have no regrets. If I ever see him again, it will be too soon. I could explain further, but you get the general ideal My advice – Stay Away.

    1. Dave

      George, I’m sorry for your experience. My mother grew up during the Depression in an abusive, patriarchal home. She was tough and harsh, and I got away as soon as I could. But over time she grew to realize she bore some responsibility for how her children turned out, and she gradually softened. Together, yet in our own ways, we resolved our relationship, and when she died there was no stress between us, only love.
      I mention this only to note that the tiger can, indeed, change its stripes. Forgiveness is up to each of us individually.

      1. Anita

        Agree – have similar experiences but am fortunate to have been able to forgive and have the relationships for me, my daughter and now my grand-daughter – she even knows her great-grandparents. Forgiveness is powerful – given and received.

  3. Becky

    Joseph, this is very good advice. I wish I had heard this or known it when I was raising my own children. I would have at least significantly limited their visits with a grandparent who was all too influential in a negative and damaging way. They are adults now, and the effects of this and other hurtful experiences not only linger in their hearts and minds, but are perpetuated in the way they handle their own children. My heart breaks anew every day for them and my grandchildren.

  4. nancykasmar

    Very thoughtful and insightful advice. Sadly, most abusers have a hard time believing their actions were and continue to be hurtful, even decades later.

  5. Tony

    The questioner signed the message “to forgive or protect?” which made me feel uneasy: what would be more important than protecting your children? Why would you ever think “is this other thing more important?” But I decided to look up the definition of forgive to make sure I still agreed: to stop feeling anger toward something.

    Whether or not the questioner feels anger toward their parent seems like an irrelevant point here. So to me this is not about forgiveness. It’s about the possible harm to their children from contact with someone who was an abuser in the past (and could still be now) vs. the benefit from “having a grandparent”. I’d question why the benefit seems so important. What is it about a grandparent that you wish for your children? You want someone who cares for them, right? and the one solid piece of evidence you have about this person is that they are (or were) an abuser. That doesn’t sound like someone who cares.

    “forgive or protect?” you ask. Forgive is about you. Protect is about your children.

    None of this is to criticize Joseph’s advice, which is well written. Good luck with a difficult situation.

    1. Dave

      At the risk of taking up too much bandwidth, I’d like to comment yet again.
      The best approach is to forgive AND protect. Forgiveness may mean to stop feeling anger, but that’s only a small part of it. The greater part involves making a decision that you will not be driven by resentment (or guilt). Instead, you accept the situation and move forward without the burden of resentment. Acceptance isn’t easy, nor is it pleasant to move on while leaving another behind. But to thus forgive is to be clear in your own heart, which enables you to bring more wisdom to your life.

  6. Kathryn Schneider

    An excellent response to the question. Wish I had had this when I was working with adult incest survivors. All of us want a healthy, loving relationship with our parents, but not all parents are capable of providing that. Protecting your children and yourself is paramount. Thank you.

  7. Karen

    My first thought was IF you rekindle your relationship, and IF you see that the ‘change’ is genuine after extended periods of time with her, then introducing the children should be with at a very limited time at first (maybe even in public somewhere, i.e. a park, a restaurant, etc), and with YOU ALWAYS there so no abuse can happen without you being aware of it. Do not leave your children alone with her for any amount of time. That would be my major concern. Choosing to trust, but then that trust is violated because you weren’t there, even for just a few minutes. Leave no room open for when abuse can take place and do so much damage to even just one child.

  8. Randy Isaacson

    I taught Crucial Conversation/Confrontations for many years in my university and was always impressed with the crucial skills programs. This is one more example of your program and people knowing how to deal with incredibly difficult situations. You change the lives of so many. Thank you.

  9. Jennifer Jones

    What a wonderful response, Joseph. Thank you!

  10. Author

    Thankfully I can’t personally relate to what “Forgive or Protect” experienced, but I’m struck by the wisdom in Joseph’s advice, especially the need to focus first on what’s most important: the physical and emotional well being of the children. It seems easy to allow empathy (or guilt) to override good judgement and shrewdness. This advice REALLY resonated with me.

  11. Anonymous

    I love your response, too. As I read it, though, I wondered if you already have an article on a similar but opposite situation. I am mom to two adults in early forties. They aren’t abusive, but they are indifferent to our existence. (Son, who lives in New York, said if we move to Phoenix he won’t ever come see us. We decided to remain on the east coast so we can, at least see him, sometimes.) Both offspring are eager to see us at Christmas, if we go to see them, and agree to our visits. I understand the challenges of having parents to visit, plus sites and venues to visit with one’s own nuclear family, with only 2 weeks’ vacation. ‘Been THERE. Neither one, however, wants us to be part of his/her life. It appears I did a good job of fostering independence, and “Family” as it relates to the sibling, but somehow omitted our own relevance. Neither has interest in us as the fun, interesting human beings we are. We’re at a loss as to how to handle. We want to be open minded, hearted and armed, and forgiving, but clearly out of sight is out of mind. I told each one I will not live with my nose pressed against a window to his/her life. Each of them is indifferent to us as parents and as people. Any suggestions?

  12. Amit

    Dear Joseph,

    Although this Q&A has nothing to do with me, I felt so touched by your considered advice that I thought I should write to thank you. I am sure the person you has asked you this would have benefited from what you said.


  13. Harry

    I have a similar childhood experience. My abuser bluntly refuses to acknowledge anything he’s done was wrong. At most he downplayed it by saying he just hit me a few times, and asked me why I held grudges? In the meantime the emotional abuse continues. He’d get angry if he didn’t like what I said. I tried to reason with him. He shut me up by shouting at me. If I wrote him with my reasonings, he’s just let his anger run wild and get himself into high blood pressure. All other relatives would blame me for it. It’s such a thorny situation. What to do if someone is not willing to listen to reason and push all the responsibility to other people including his own well being?

    1. Dave

      I can relate. You have a tough decision. You have to choose between your own welfare and the attachment to your family. I chose my emotional health and have never regretted it, despite estrangement and loneliness. The cost of this choice is high, but the cost of choosing the other way is even higher.
      Wishing you clarity and peace.

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